We need to renew the way we read the Bible. I’ll be writing more about this in the months to come, but tonight I was particularly struck by one of the reasons why.
In the story of King Solomon (1 Kings 1–12), we read about a mighty ruler with the world at his feet. If you open a Bible, you’ll find that this story comes with headings, a bit like chapter titles. Helpful, right?
These headings are supposed to be descriptive, so that we can find our way around. [Character] + [plot event]. Straightforward, isn’t it? And at first glance, that’s how it sounds: “Solomon’s other activities”, “Solomon’s splendour”, “Solomon’s wives”, and so on.
In effect, however, these headings put a certain spin on the story. In this case, they lead us to imagine that Solomon’s reign was the glorious climax of Israel: a king who was shrewd and busy and powerful and, we imagine, worthy of celebration. Maybe that is still the Solomon you think of!
Yet this runs against the grain of the story itself. According to the story (1 Kings 9–11), Solomon’s wisdom and wealth is wrapped up with rottenness. In the passage innocently titled “Solomon’s other activities”, we find this wisest of kings using slave labour and selling off his own townships! Meanwhile, “Solomon’s splendour” is a story of filthy luxury and power-grabbing — there’s a reason the king’s annual income of gold is numbered at 666! And “Solomon’s wives?” No, Solomon’s gods — gods who demand child sacrifice. This king is totally crooked. His million marriages are just the final nail in the coffin.
The story of Solomon is not a detached reporting of the facts. It is a thoroughly theological narrative with a thoroughly theological point. Solomon’s wisdom has deserted him because Solomon has deserted God. At the pinnacle of its might, the nation of Israel has become exactly like the surrounding nations — and, more to the point, exactly like Egypt, the land of slavery, the symbol of oppression.
And it’s not as if this meaning is hidden in some web of interpretation. It’s quite plain.
But to get at the meaning, we need to get past those infuriating, “helpful” headings. Tonight, for my friends and I, the meaning was clear — yet not because we had Bibles in our hands, but because we did not. It took a retelling of the story, a spoken performance, for the message to be communicated.
The disturbing thing is that these “helpful” headings turn up, in more or less the same form, in pretty much every current English translation.
We have the greatest access to the Bible in history — but our Bibles are obscuring themselves.
Have you had any similar experiences?
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.